When I was a kid I got into electronics because I started reading specialized magazines on the topic. At the same time it was hard for me to learn electronics from them because the content was not really “beginner friendly” and the projects were not very exciting. They were conceived more for people who were already into the technology and loved circuits than for explaining to newbies what circuits do and what you can do with them.
The way I really started learning electronics was when I received a kit as a present. It was called the Lectron System and was made by the German company Braun. It was a composed of cubes you could snap together magnetically to build different circuits just by following some simple drawings and instructions. The cubes were transparent so you could look inside to learn about the electronic parts.
The kit was a complete experience because it also had a book with great illustrations and simple explanations designed to look very appealing and make technology less scary through hands-on experiments. The original ad said: “Hey look, I just built a radio in two minutes” and it was actually true! Here’s what the kit looked like.
Designing the User Experience
The most interesting aspect of this kit was the ability to shorten the time between starting a project and the moment you get a positive result right “out-of-the-box.” Playing with it and learning from it got me into electronics and sparked my interest in design.
It turns out the kit was created by one of the most important designers of the period, Dieter Rams. He worked for Braun in the 1960s and 1970s and created many iconic objects and inspired a lot of contemporary Californian design as you can see from the pictures below:
Check out this video with Dieter discussing good design:
Dieter’s way of looking at design was expressed in a broader sense: He came up with a list of design principles and many of those principles reflected the relationship of people interacting with objects and space.
I think this point is very important when designing technology: we must care about the people who are using it more than the technology itself.
When I got my first computer in the 1980s, it was the moment when people could finally afford a computer without mortgaging their home. To use it I had to punch hexadecimal numbers on a keyboard and the result was that you could display numbers on the LCD display. It was an Amico2000 (Friend2000) and it was not, what I’d define “user friendly.”
My next computer, the Sinclair ZX81 Basic, was a great improvement. It had only 1kb of RAM, but I could do a lot of stuff with it and it was really simple and could offer a whole experience. Even when I took it apart, a habit I’ve had since I was a kid, the circuit gave me a feeling of simplicity from just a few components you could assemble yourself.
The book that came with it—even if you happen to read it now—offers a good way to learn the basics of the programming language by moving forward progressively toward more complex concepts.
The Birth of Arduino
Fast forward to 2002. I was teaching at IDII Design School in Ivrea, Italy, the city where Olivetti was born and a lot of the Arduino boards are still made. The school was focused on interactive design, a specific branch of design that looks at how people interact with technology. The idea is to not only design the shape of something, but also how people will interact with that object. This is very important because you can have a nice product with a terrible interface. The result is a less-than-beautiful user experience.
The students usually don’t have a background in technology. They don’t know how to program or to do electronics and we only gave them two-to-four weeks to create physical computing projects. At that time, the tools you’d find in the market were mostly designed for engineers, with a lot of options, lots of jumpers, and lots of connectors. Students found them too complex and couldn’t figure them out properly. Looking at the way we worked with students taught us a lot, and Arduino came out of that work.
Optimizing the User Experience
If you look at it, you realize Arduino boards are a mashup of open technologies wrapped up in a unified user experience. From the out-of-the-box experience we want to know how long it takes to you to go from zero to something that works. This is very important because it creates a positive reinforcement that you are on the right path. The longer that time is, the more people you lose in the process.
I think we are all on the edge of a new step in the maker movement and some of you are surely working on the next big thing. Please keep at it, but keep in mind the overall experience. You can put a processor that is 100 Mhz more than another one, but the way you interact with it makes a huge difference to people because it’s more important to take care of the experience people have when they learn than to give them power they don’t know what to do with.